THE LUCKIEST MAN IN THE WORLD
Day 34 Show Low to Vernon
today: 18 cumulative: 646
Leaving big hotel bed and A woman in the restaurant sits in a wheel chair, she eats in slow motion, she can still lift a coffee cup but it looks painful, and then she spills it. I want to die suddenly, an avalanche maybe, or spontaneous combustion. Or will I be desperately holding on to a coffee cup trying to drink one more day?
They say Im about to get to the windy part of this walk and at the edge of town It comes up off the plains right on cue, and cold. Another gas station another place to stall, another phone call and a snickers bar, and a here we go. Today I am supposed to stop at Garys home somewhere on the road to Springerville. I met Gary at a gas station in Globe a week ago. High plains and nothing at all like the mountains of the last week, just open plains and harmonica. And people stopping to talk to me that saw me on the mountain roads and are glad to see I am still alive, and my god did you really walk up Salt River Canyon? Yes, and I will walk into 50 mile an hour winds today and below zero thirty mile days and hopefully a tornado before this whole thing is over. And golf ball sized hail. And lightning. And everyone tilts their heads sideways when I say things like that and wonder if I am not mad, but I ease their fears by saying that I have a force field at my disposal and that I dont believe in physics, or gravity, or time. "Oh, youll be fine then," they all say and when they get to their car they are just glad that the crazy man didnt hurt them.
On the road to Springerville Gary and his girlfriend Lori drive by and wave me down. They thought I might be here tonight so they have cooked a pot roast, itll be ready to eat by the time I get to the trailer. "Just got to run into town to get some peppermint schnapps, be right back before you get to the turn off." Seeing them on the highway is like running into old friends, even though we just talked at a gas station for 5 minutes. Just after dark they return and drive beside me down the dirt road to their home and Gary is telling me about breaking his back and his ex-wife and why he likes it out here but its so much information and I keep missing words because his engine is loud.
Dogs are everywhere and old cars and piles of rocks that Gary collects and an outdoor toilet with no walls and burned piles of garbage but some didnt burn and the wind is blowing it away. No telephone, no address. The trailer is heated by a wood stove, his daughter sits in a yellow plastic walker on wheels and Lori is making gravy. Gary bought this trailer for $800 by selling pieces of petrified wood and crystals in Quartzsite at the mineral show. Unlike most Americans he owns his home. But the land is not his and its a long story how he got here, the people who own it let him stay here for free. There is no running water. He is currently in what he calls "survival mode," his disability checks just got cut to $77, they say they paid too much for his hospital bills and surgeries. He has taken them to court but it takes 3 months to get done with one part of it and another 3 for the next part and another 3 for the next and thats how they starve you out and make you give up. Thats what the schnapps is for, hes no heavy drinker, no beer in the fridge, but its just one of those nights where you have to have peppermint schnapps in your hot chocolate, and hes getting back surgery in a few days too. Loose titanium implants in his spine.
Garys always gotten by on very little, he used to trap furs before it was made illegal, he hunts elk and makes jerky, and he is a flint knapper, meaning that he makes arrow heads and spear points and sells them at shows. He collects rocks and dinosaur teeth and other fossils that can be found out here and has spent most of the last 20 years sitting on the ground sifting through the dirt for more treasures. He has made his living with these findings. He is also self taught at just about everything, after dropping out of high school he ran away from books to learn from the world. All of the things he builds he builds from natural materials and has learned how to build them by finding artifacts in these hills and caves and recreating them. Beads made with arrowhead hand drills, apache violins, pipes of bone and antler and turquoise, knife handles and spear points and other carved objects.
Gary used to have a wife, she took the house and took the kids and made them hate their dad and when he thought things couldnt get worse he broke his back at work and lost most muscle function below the waist . His wife left him soon after that and took his house.
When they released him from the hospital he had no place to go and he had lost everything he lived for, he didnt even know where they had gone. And Gary was too proud to ask for help so he lived in a car with a broken back and he went into a great depression. Some friends tried to help him out by taking him fishing with them, to get him out of his car and out of his head for a few hours. And on the way back from the lake they got in a car accident and Gary broke his back in another place and had to get titanium replacements for several of his discs. But when the surgery was over he was released again and had to find a place to live and a way to pay for it while his court case with his wife and his court case with his job were starving him. The surgery got his legs working again and he was able to use crutches and drag himself around the local hills. He always went to the hills when times were hard, when one of his children died, when his wife left him, when his back was broken, the hills were his church.
And in the days that he wandered these hills grieving he returned to the places he had trapped 20 years ago, and found his treasure chests. With the things he dug out of the dirt and dragged to his car and polished and chipped and carved, he was able to buy a trailer for $800, and a friend let him keep it out here on the road to Springerville, within walking distance of his favorite fossil hunting grounds. And the whole time Gary was dragging himself through the hills on crutches his pregnant girlfriend Lori was working all the way through to the last weeks before Michelle, his 10th child, was born. And those were tough days for all of them. "I lost everything, my wife, my house, my children, my legs, my job, and everything came back. I remember saying What did I do God? This isnt funny, but thats just life. You live life on lifes terms, and now I have Michelle and Lori and a roof over our heads. I am the luckiest man in the world." He says this even as he has been cut down again in court and lives on $77 a month, and has daily back spasms that lay him out on the ground for 15 minutes at a time, paralyzing pain, because he has his baby and his girlfriend and he is living in his church and he is an artist and he is so proud of the arrowheads he makes and the fossils he collects and now the schnapps is not for forgetting it is for celebrating how lucky we are. Hold onto the coffee cup for another day, even though those back spasms could paralyze you any day now, hold onto the coffee cup and keep making arrow heads and keep creating beautiful things and loving your baby and your girlfriend and your open eyes that are lucky enough to see the sunset, and drink hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps.
And while we are celebrating we eat our pot roast and mashed potatoes and gravy and it is like Christmas in this little trailer with my new family that I have known for only 2 hours, and Gary shows me all of his collections and how one rock hitting another makes an impact cone and the angle of the cone is 130 degrees and that is the secret of making arrowheads, and how a pump drill works, and then he runs out to get some petrified wood that he says is 250 million years old and runs into the back to get jars full of crystals, and emerald beads that he found in anthills, and he shows me geodes filled with different colored pigments that you can use for paint, and starts breaking all of them open to prove it, and here are some bones from a Placerius, and a bucket full of teeth from a dinosaur called the Phytosaurus that lived n the Medium Triassic Period 220 million years ago. He is so happy to have someone to share this with, and Lori keeps telling him that Im tired and to let the boy eat, but I am glad to see these things because I know how happy it makes Gary. Sitting by the wood stove we are all so happy. And Michelle is happy as she sits on her fathers lap and this, most of all, is why Gary is happy. Gary is the luckiest man in the world.
"If you stay around awhile tomorrow Ill take you out to look for arrowheads, I know a place where I can almost guarantee youll find one." My father and I used to hunt for arrowheads and fossils in the hills of Wyoming, I to have spent a few years sifting through the dirt, but not since I was 12, so tomorrow I am going to stay and go look for treasures with this new father. Cosmo sleeps on the floor and I stare at the antlers that hang from the ceiling, Christmas cards pinned to the wall, pictures of Garys 10 children, an American flag on the door. Smell of smoke, and the crackling noise that comes from the wood stove and waking up in the middle of the night I think that I am in a cabin in Wyoming with my these people are my family too.
Gary is a strong man for not dropping his coffee cup.